Reading List: Before They’re Gone

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The splendor of the glaciers. The melting of the glaciers. Breathtaking views of wildlife. Diminishing numbers of wildlife. This is the back-and-forth journey readers take through Michael Lanza’s 2012 book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.

Lanza, an outdoors writer and photographer, takes his family on a series of adventures through 10 national parks: Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier Bay, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Joshua Tree, Yellowstone, and the Everglades. He weaves together tales of his children’s antics and interests on the trails with research about the effects of climate change at each park they visit.

National Parks Week is a good time to look at a few NPS-related reads. Although this book is not new, and some of its data are now outdated (not in a happy way), it’s a worthwhile read because, in the midst of Lanza’s park descriptions, there lies an invitation for personal reflection.

What spurred some of that reflection for me was one of the book’s stylistic elements, the segues between personal anecdote and scientific data. On my first read, these occasionally seemed forced and felt like hiccups that detract from the flow of Lanza’s narrative.

As he describes his family’s trip to Mount Rainier National Park, for example, Lanza offers little transition between his view of Rainier and its likely climate-changed future:

“I gaze up at Rainier’s tattered and torn cape of glaciers, too immense for our eyes to accurately interpret its scale; and it seems at once impossible, amazing, and frightening that we are capable of affecting the climate in a way that alters the topography of this mountain.

What seems most certain for Mount Rainier National Park’s future is greater uncertainty: bigger storms; roads, trails, and bridges washed out randomly; campsites occasionally erased from the landscape.”

Similarly, any awe in his description of a Glacier National Park hike is overridden by downsides:

“Nate and Alex glance up, then go back to their snack bars and to acting out their stuffed animals talking to each other. Even Penny has little to say. I look out at the glaciers again. The truth is, the view is beautiful, but the glaciers not so impressive. Melting has fragmented them into numerous lobes and fingers. It looks like milk rained on the mountains, leaving scattered white puddles.

In recent years, the Blackfoot has shrunk faster than computer models predicted it would.”

As I go back to the book again, I feel differently. If the downsides seem ever-present, maybe they are meant to be. Sure, there remain some stilted transitions, but I notice the disconnect between narrative and research much less than I used to.

My theory is that when I first read the book over a year ago, environmental issues were less on my mind. Now, I find they are ever-present—in the news, in my lived experience, on my mind. What originally seemed to be uncommon connections between ideas have become much more common for me. Now, I see dark poetry tying together the family’s wilderness encounters with the stark reality of a place’s present and future, such as when Lanza recounts a moment in Glacier Bay National Park:

“A harbor seal pokes its slicked head above water not fifty feet away, investigating us with dark eyes. I hear Alex faintly catch her breath as she and the seal exchange stares for an instant, before it disappears with a bloop.

Then a sharp concussion, like a large-caliber gunshot, rips the quiet open.

About six miles away, but visible to us at the other end of the inlet because it’s so massive, the mile-wide, twelve-mile-long Johns Hopkins Glacier has spontaneously cleaved off another immense piece of itself with a booming detonation.”

I can only conclude that what I notice in the style says as much about my awareness as it does about the writing itself.

Sometimes it seems that the changing climate, as reported in the news, or as discussed in society, is just a passing event. We observe it as though we are not participants. We casually mention it as though it were a momentary distraction—or something very far away. Writers report on it with limited societal or political response.

In that vein, it would be easy to be overly critical of the author’s methods of sharing beauty with his children. Lanza writes in the prologue, as he explains why his family takes the trip sooner rather than later, “Now carbon dioxide was messing with my plans. It seemed I needed to get busy.” For him, “getting busy” means getting his family on the road or in the air to witness beauty he knows is at risk. My initial reaction is scorn for his travel, which contributes to the release of greenhouse gases. The family’s journey to see what they can while it still exists effectively diminishes the very wonders he wishes might be preserved.

But then I have to take a step back. How many of us wouldn’t want the chance to show our children all that remains wonderful in this world? It is no easy task to navigate the extremes that would have us, on the one hand, cease to live and explore, and on the other, simply declare the cause lost and live as we wish, consequences be damned.

I suppose I simply want Lanza to acknowledge that he understands the contradiction between the book’s core message and what he had to do in order to write it. The most I see of this is toward the end, where he includes a few lines about personal behaviors:

“Humans possess great adaptability. But applying that ability begins with acknowledging the truth. Failing to be honest with ourselves is tantamount to lying to our children.

In one generation, we changed attitudes in America toward smoking cigarettes, driving while intoxicated, and wearing seatbelts—in part because we recognized that changing our behaviors was a demonstration of love and caring for our children. Driving less, reducing energy consumption at home and work, and demanding that our leaders support converting from fossil fuels to clean energy—these are a powerful expression of concern for our kids.”

Does he fail to be honest? These lines are not an outright acknowledgment of the fact that travel can contribute significantly to emissions. But then again, I think I’ve come to better understand the gray area inherent in wanting to share sights and experiences with children while also wanting to mitigate damage to the places. I imagine few of us tread that line quite as we should.

At any rate, it’s a worthwhile read. If you’re either busy or find yourself trying to read too many books at once, the chapters can be read out of sequence. Choose a park you’re interested in and read about that one first. Come back to it a couple of months later if you don’t have time to finish it in one go, and it’ll still work out.

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